Can We Teach Judgment to Pilots?

Club training sessions provide an opportunity for valuable lessons. Volker Kotscha

The argument is an old one: Can we teach judgment to pilots, or is the aviation industry left to simply search for pilots who already possess solid problem-solving skills? I’ve always thought the answer was somewhere in between, especially since FAA examiners like to ask applicants questions based on scenarios those pilots might encounter later in their flying lives. The new Airmen Certification Standards also focus specifically on scenarios in determining pilot competency. And, to some extent, good judgment is based on making mistakes, errors that are often based on bad judgment, at least initially.

At our local flying club – Leading Edge Flying Club ( – I can’t remember any of us wrestling much with the specifics of the judgment issue. But what have become valuable elements of club membership are the training opportunities for people to swap stories offered at both the monthly breakfasts and lunches, as well as our impromptu training nights. The club roster boasts about 80 members, many who learned to fly with the club and went on to purchase their own airplanes.

A few Saturdays back, about 20 of us showed up at the clubhouse that sits atop one of the big old hangars on the west side of Chicago Executive Airport ( The event was billed as a hot dog lunch, although it’s really about pilots and non-pilots getting together to talk about their latest adventures. We’ve all learned that pilots sharing stories teaches others not simply about an event, but how that pilot thought through the problem and whether they’d handle it differently next time.

At this particular meeting, a relatively new instrument pilot interrupted the discussions, announcing that he had something he needed to get off his chest. The room grew quiet as he recounted a flight he had taken in the Cirrus SR22 he owns with two other members, one of whom was in the back seat at the time.

They were west of Chicago in Iowa and were preparing to head home wanting to beat a snowstorm that was approaching the airport. The pilot said he could have filed an IFR flight plan, but didn’t want to waste the time since the rest of the flight out east of the departure airport was solid VFR. As he lined up on the runway for takeoff, initially headed west, he could see a dark area ahead and knew it was snow. He also thought he could beat it if he turned back east shortly after takeoff.

What he didn’t realize until he was just airborne was that the snow had already crossed the departure end of the runway and was moving east. Instantly the airplane was in IMC with a bit of limited visibility looking down. And of course, looking down just as you go into the soup is one of the worst things any pilot can do, something this fellow admitted.

As his story continued, I could see his hands anxiously waving as he made one point after another, especially the ones where he wrestled with the airplane to complete the turn back to the east. The ground proximity system started yelling too, “Obstacle, Obstacle,” when it sensed tall radio towers nearby, which he said just made him more anxious.

Then the other pilot in the back seat began emphatically pointing out a descent rate that at times approached 1,500 fpm. The pilot said his brain had become overloaded, but he managed to get the aircraft climbing once again. Almost as quickly as it entered the snow storm, the Cirrus broke free into clear air climbing east toward Chicago. Forty-five minutes later the airplane landed safely at home base.

But the pilot at our event that day knew he couldn’t end the story there. He went on to tell us everything he learned that day, like how much easier the flight would have been with an IFR flight plan and a departure in which he’d been prepared to enter the snow and clouds just as he’d been taught. He also spoke about how, flight plan or not, he should have been able to execute a standard rate climbing turn more easily and that he was now planning on getting some additional instrument training. He mentioned that during his instrument rating training, this kind of VFR into IMC scenario was spoken about often, but he was smart enough never to allow that to happen to him; the way he encountered the unexpected instrument conditions that day was something he’d never experienced in training.

Finally, he admitted how much more difficult the flight became when he had to modulate his brain between his own problem solving and that of the fellow in the back seat, helpful as that guy was trying to be.

“I’m glad this all worked out OK,” he said to the group. “This has been bugging me all week and I just had to get it off my chest.” Ah yes, pilot therapy for the price of a hot dog.

So, did this guy show some bad judgment as he prepared for departure into the face of an approaching snowstorm? As he admitted, “Absolutely.” Do you think he learned enough from this flight to perform differently as a pilot the next time? I’m thinking he did. And do you think every pilot in the room that afternoon, who always said VFR into IMC could never possibly get them, learned some valuable lessons for the next time they encounter similar conditions? I hope so.

One other skill that this pilot possessed that made it easier to absorb the lessons learned that day however, was the intelligence he already possessed to admit what he didn’t know.

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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